Final exams at Pruden Center for Industry

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 14, 2006

There was this blurb in the News-Herald about heavy equipment trials being held Saturday at the school … students to compete against a clock. My wife and I gave it a go.

We assumed it was students proving they could handle big-ticket items like backhoes, front end loaders, etc. There was a small crowd, most wearing yellow hardhats. The others were obviously friends and family members watching students strut their stuff, tensely following instructions as they eased tons of yellow steel around the tricky course.

They had to maneuver around cones, pick up a few yards of sand and empty it delicately into a dump truck.


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There were other tests, and the one most interesting was to use a backhoe to fish with a six-foot chain tied to the bucket so as to hook a small eye on a pin. This required a touch few could manage before the clock ran out and I was tense with exhaustion watching them get tantalizingly close. I helped them all I could with my body English.

Watching these &uot;kids&uot; took me back to when I was a skinny kid in the Army training in Death Valley, Calif., to become a Combat Engineer. I had enjoyed a sand box as a child and here I was with a hundred miles of sand and tons of huge steel toys to play with … every kind of earth moving equipment that had been invented by 1943, painted green.

At that age I had not even imagined &uot;toys&uot; that size and we had to learn to drive them, do what they were created to do, and clean them at the end of very long days.

It was strenuous work, they thought, but it was actually playtime for 18-year-olds.

Man, just to sit in a D-10 bulldozer was, we thought, as thrilling as flying a plane. It’s a good thing we were in the desert; many things can go wrong when kids get hold of adult toys.

There wasn’t a tree standing within miles of camp and we could reduce a large hill to flat land in a day or two. When you remove a hill you have to put it somewhere, so we’d build another hill.

Before our training was complete, three months later, every piece of heavy equipment had been hit by every other piece of heavy equipment. And if they had awarded Purple Hearts for every personal injury, we’d have had more medals than General George Patton.

If only they had given us some German Tiger tanks to bang around. I think we could have whipped them and later made the Battle of the Bulge easier.

Funny thing about that equipment; it followed us to Europe. We had left it there in the desert, what was left of it, and headed for the East Coast to board troop ships to England. That trip across the North Sea in January was rougher than anything we had ever done with the bulldozers.

In England we trained to build bridges, all kinds of them, and we were good at it. Combat Engineers are trained to do many things, including the use of high explosives. Give us a few hundred pounds of TNT, and with our D-8 cats, we could clear a forest and create an airport or a field hospital in hours. We were ready when D-Day came and did our work on Omaha Beach.

When the beaches were cleansed of obstacles, mines, and barbed wire, we moved inland to rejoin the British Second Army and American Ninth. We went by truck to what had now become an assembly area just behind the front lines. To our utter amazement, there in a large field were the original tons of heavy equipment we had said goodbye to in California, still badly dinged up but with a fresh coat of green paint.

It was good to be back among old &uot;friends.&uot;

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